Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Making cents on the street

Jose Castillo was fired from his job at the Chicago Police Department more than 20 years ago. Since then, he has bounced between D.C. and Chicago, struggling to find housing.

“It’s a big business to keep people homeless,” laments Castillo, a father of three who now calls the streets of D.C. his home.

He said that after missing one month’s rent, he became homeless and now stays at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter and 2nd and D streets. It’s a tough life, but his experience with Washington’s homeless newspaper, Street Sense, is making things a little more tolerable.

“It’s like a big family,” Castillo said as he sat in Street Sense’s McPherson Square office. “We all look up to each other. It’s one of the best organizations I’ve volunteered with. It’s a family, but it’s a serious business as well.”

Street Sense is a monthly newspaper with a circulation of more than 8,000 that the homeless and formerly homeless sell to passersby on the streets of the city. Vendors pay 30 cents for copies of the paper, which they then sell for a suggested donation of $1.

“It’s a good paper. It’s definitely a way to add income when people give a dollar or more,” said Marshall White, who other vendors affectionately call “Sergeant.” “It’s fairly easy, and it’s positive. As opposed to panhandling, you can put immediate income in your pocket.”

White worked in the telecommunications industry for 18 years, but in his last four years of employment he was laid off five times. When his last company downsized, he was gone after just a month and a half on the job. He also sleeps at the CCNV shelter.

White said he was originally unsure about becoming a part of the paper, but after two months with Street Sense, his attitude has changed. White makes about $40 a day selling his papers in Chinatown.

“When I found out about this two months ago, I was apprehensive, but I like it,” he said. “I get a lot of fulfillment out of it. Its keeps me busy.”

White spends three days a week working at Street Sense’s office, which shares space with the National Coalition for the Homeless. He sounds and acts professionally as he answers phones and completes other clerical work. Though White works on a purely volunteer basis, he benefits from his job. By having regular access to a phone and computer, he is able to search for employment.

“We use the Internet, get on the phone and look at prospective jobs,” White said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

White also contributes to the paper. In one edition, he created a piece titled “A Day in the Life,” in which he used pictures and captions to describe a typical day.

“They offer lunch here, but you have to show up at 11 a.m. to go through an hour-long rap session first,” he wrote about a church in Northwest.

Also included in the paper are news articles about issues facing the homeless, feature stories, poetry, book reviews, columns and, though they seem out of place, recipes.

Laura Thompson, the paper’s cofounder, said people’s misconceptions about the homeless are changed when they see the contributions they make to Street Sense.

“It’s trying to break the stereotypes, and I think a lot of vendors are doing that – showing they can write interesting, thoughtful articles,” she said.

Thompson, a reporter for American Banker, started the paper in November 2003 with Ted Hanson after learning about the success of other street papers. There are 46 publications similar to Street Sense throughout North America and Europe, she said.

“I was in Seattle with a friend and came across their paper,” Thomspon said. “I thought it was a good idea, and I wondered why there wasn’t one in D.C.”

Thomspon said D.C. actually had its own homeless paper before Street Sense, but it came nowhere near the success that her incarnation has achieved.

“D.C. had one from 1999 to 2000 called StreetWise. It came to D.C. (from Chicago), but it didn’t last more than four issues,” Thompson said.

She said that originally, the National Coalition for the Homeless was reluctant to work with Street Sense given the history of D.C.’s previous street paper. As it approaches its one-year anniversary, the paper is planning to separate itself from the coalition and move into another office.

Independence from NCH will also bolster the paper’s fundraising capabilities, and Thompson said she hopes to make Street Sense a twice-a-month publication.

The paper’s layout is done in the office, but most of the editing takes place through e-mail correspondence among Thompson, Hanson and volunteers. A majority of the news articles are written by advocates, and most of the columns and features are written by the homeless and formerly homeless.

Thompson said vendors have helped contribute to the paper’s growth – more than 100 people have sold the paper since it was established.

“We’ve come from grassroots organization efforts,” she said. “Our vendors here have told others to come sell the paper.”

More than a dozen vendors have gained full- or part-time employment as a result of the contacts they have made while selling papers. Five vendors have moved into apartments since they began selling Street Sense.

“They’ve met people selling papers who have hired them or referred them to someone who’s hired them,” Thomspon said. “It’s a springboard to help get into the working world.”

Vendors make an average of $30 to $50 each day. Though it may not be enough to live on, it gives vendors the ability to sometimes sleep in a hotel instead of a shelter or buy their own food instead of eating at soup kitchens.

Regular vendors said it takes a certain talent to be able to sell the paper.

“Some don’t have the skill,” said Castillo, who, like White, sells his papers in Chinatown. “It’s all about personality. You have to be polite – it’s their choice not to buy it. We represent Street Sense, so we have to be polite and sharp.”

Thompson said there is a core of about 15 vendors who sell the paper regularly, but at any given time there are about 30 sellers. All of them must abide by a code of conduct printed on the back page of each issue.

Among the rules vendors must abide by are promises not to give a “hard sell,” work under the influence of drugs or alcohol and solicit after midnight.

Since he joined the paper, Castillo has enrolled in classes to help him learn about air conditioning maintenance so he can someday have a job.

“I don’t have a pipe dream in life,” Castillo said. “I do everything direct.”

In two to five years, he plans to move out of the shelter and start his own air conditioning business in Hawaii or Puerto Rico.

“I’ll open a small business,” he said. “It’ll be small, but it’ll be mine.”

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